The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: A Silk Screen, Wheat Paste Project

Carl Pope brought his ongoing graphic poster/essay installation “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” (2004—) to Duke. Pope collaborated with students in Bill Fick’s “Poster Design and Printing” course to complete this iteration of the project.

May 25 – December 1, 2021

Collaborators: Art, Art History & Visual Studies

Artist Statement

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses: A Silk Screen, Wheat Paste Project at Duke University

“The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” is an ongoing writing project that, through the use of posters, essays, and printed material, creates a forest of referential signs about aspects of Blackness as a narrative thread, weaving through every field of knowledge and human experience. Blackness is associated with African American culture, the unconscious, the hidden, the unknown and the unknowable, deception, duplicity, forgetfulness, denial, blind spots, confusion and more. Blackness also corresponds to manifested forms and is feminine and magnetic in nature.

The graphic essay/poster installation “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” represents an attempt to use the advertising style of slogans to create epiphanies about the ubiquitous presence and function of Blackness within society, Nature, and the imagination of the viewer. For this particular iteration of “The Bad Air…” at Duke University, I am focusing on a constellation of interrelated narratives regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing criminalization, violence, and killing of African Americans, Asian Americans, People of Color, immigrants, and asylum seekers.

The issues surrounding police brutality, social justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement exist throughout the history of this country, namely slavery and Black Reconstruction. Now, these issues are a rallying cry for human rights all over the world. In examining the intertextuality of myths, historical accounts, and mainstream news stories addressing militarized State power and the struggle for human freedom, I find that there are certain older stories being retold alongside these pressing issues. As a result, complicated and nuanced questions arise when we are confronted with real-life events concerning the replication of these narratives, repackaged and disseminated by the mainstream media and key institutions.

What does it mean, in the Information Age, for patriotic American Christians to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement but profess their love of Jesus Christ, while knowing the story of how the Pharisees used political power to make the Roman authorities arrest, torture and crucify him? Is it possible to follow Christ with integrity while supporting the actions of the State? What is the logic I am following if I support both sides, and is it really possible to be on both sides and remain sane or free of duplicity? Such questions bring into sharp focus the surreality of the logic provided by those in authority, if one cares to interrogate them with self-honesty.

And if I am interested enough to honestly look, what are the narratives I am advancing in my past reading and/or present reading of current events? What is my personal identification with my reading leading me to think, believe, and imagine? Is what I imagine what I wish to imagine or is it what I am told to imagine? Of course there are numerous unspoken taboos that forbid this kind of cultural literacy and critical examination. But now it seems fitting to use this wheat paste iteration of “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” to inspire the students at Duke University to meditate on the rollout of the logic of contemporary society, recent developments in the U.S. culture wars, and their cascading effects at this particular time in America history.

About the Artist

Carl Pope’s creative endeavors are based on the idea of art as a catalyst for individual and collective transformation(s). His multi-media installations were exhibited at prestigious venues including: The Museum of Modern Art and The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago; receiving generous support from The Guggenheim Foundation, The Lilly Endowment, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. The installations gained national and international exposure with “New Photography 6” at the Museum of Modern Art and “Black Male” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Since 1990, Pope’s methodology with public art evolved into ongoing collaborative efforts with artists and communities, producing large-scale public art inventions that stimulate public dialogue and/or community revitalization. Excursions into his internal landscape produced the video/text installation “Palimpsest” commissioned by the Wadsworth Atheneum; with funds from The Warhol and Lannan Foundations, was included in the Whitney Biennial 2000. Pope worked as a co-curator with Jonathan Katz on the exhibition “Queer Visualities” in 2002. Pope uses his curatorial activities in service to the cultural production of the LGBTQ community, African-American community and local communities across the country.

The essay of letterpress posters “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” and his recent billboard campaigns continue his ongoing exploration into public and inner space. In 2018, an iteration of “The Bad Air…” was published in the hardcover version of “The Appearance of Black Lives Matter” by Nicholas Mirzoeff.

“Carl Pope’s work is at once a form of geography, re-imagining and imaging the forgotten histories, people and places in America, and a new psychology, creating a state of mind capable of sustaining the shocks of the present. It’s soul food for the mind, in sharp contrast to the quick hit of consumer pleasure that dominates the art market, and it’s all the more important for that.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communications, NYU

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Art as Public Intervention: Carl Pope’s “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses”

Over the course of the Spring 2021 semester, visiting artist Carl Pope worked with students to bring “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses” (2004—), his ongoing installation about the presence and function of Blackness in society, to Duke’s campus. This silk screen and wheat paste iteration is on view at the Rubix until December 1.

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